Stories That Stick: The Cremation of Sam McGee

There is not a lot of poetry on my home bookshelf. I do, however, have a copy of The Best of Robert Service, and I reread a number of the poems on a semi-regular basis. Many of Service’s poems are good examples of how poetry can be rich without being bewildering, and how a good story can be told in poetic form. In other words, his poems are fun to read and don’t leave me feeling like a literary moron. (Whether or not I am a literary moron is a debate for another day.)

The first Robert Service poem I remember reading is, arguably, his best known: The Cremation of Sam McGee. I can’t remember exactly how old I was. Young enough that I remember it was actually being read to me. I also can’t say exactly how old I was when I realised The Cremation of Sam McGee was not intended as a children’s story.

In hindsight, cremation does seem an unlikely topic for a children’s book. On the other hand, I don’t recall being freaked out in the least. Goes to show, you can broach pretty much any topic with kids if you do it right.

How might one confuse the story of a Klondike prospector cremating his Tennessee-born, recently frozen to death friend with children’s literature?

We had a very good illustrated version. I’m pretty sure it was this one by Kids Can Press:

My clearest mental image is of Sam McGee smiling from the flames of the boiler in which he was cremated (with unanticipated results). Kudos to the illustrator, Ted Harrison; it didn’t look nearly as creepy as it sounds. And kudos to Kids Can Press for realising even a poem about death and cremation in the Klondike could be presented in a kid-friendly fashion.

Thanks to this early exposure to Robert Service, I’m a life-long fan. I also have a greater appreciation (which is to say, I have any appreciation at all) for poetry in general than I would, likely, have otherwise. (Note: My grade-ten English teacher also deserves some of the credit for that.)

Anyone else remember that Klondike Bar commercial from the 80s? It’s now stuck in my head. I will leave you with the question: What would you do for a Klondike Bar?

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Unexpected Sources

Never know where you’ll stumble upon a good story you haven’t read. Though, I have read a fair amount of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, I’m far from having read them all.

One of the many blogs I follow is Science-Based Medicine—a group of relatively-sane voices in an internet full of nutso. Though Bradbury stories have little to do with medicine or science, of the real-life variety anyway, a recent post of SBM included a link to a PDF of All Summer in a Day. One of Bradbury’s on my unread list.

It gave me something to read while I waited for my eye exam. Unfortunately, short as the story is, I only got halfway through it before they called my name (of course the doctor is on time when I’m actually enjoying the wait). Then they put those dilating drops in my eyes. I tried to finish the story while waiting for the drops to kick in, but the world got fuzzy quickly and looking at my phone screen became like staring into the sun. Appropriate considering the subject of the story, but irritating. I had to wait until I got home to finish it.

Anyway, good story. Glad I came across it in August. It might have been a bit too depressing a read in January.

(Not So) Obscure References

I was reading Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. Most of you know Douglas Adams as the writer of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and other quirky fiction. Last Chance to See, is non-fiction.

Carwardine is a zoologist. Adams is definitely not, but he is—was :(— incredibly intelligent and much better at expressing his thoughts in a digestible way than the average incredibly-intelligent person. The book documents their travels looking for rare and endangered species. While the species still existed, hence the name of the book.

It’s an excellent book. Hilarious, and a little sad given not all the species they saw are still around. I highly recommend it.

Another, and one would think unrelated, book I read sometime before getting around to Last Chance to See was The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. First published in 1951, this sci-fi novel has a definite Cold War Era ‘the arms race will end the human race and it must be the Russians fault’ thing going for it. Not a bad read. I don’t recommend it quite as highly, but if 50s sci fi is your thing you’d probably like it. Actually, if 50s sci fi is your thing you probably already have.

What made me laugh, or I should say one of the many things that made me laugh, reading Last Chance to See was the following passage:

“It’s hard for an Englishman to think of something like privet as being an exotic and ferocious life form – my grandmother has neatly trimmed privet bushes lining her front garden – but in Mauritius it behaves like a bunch of marauding triffids.”

I laughed because, had I read these books in the reverse order, the triffids reference would have been totally lost on me. Not sure if it’s my generation, ignorance, or if this reference is really that obscure, but ‘triffids’ is not a term I had picked up through cultural osmosis. I guess reading really does make you smarter.

Note: In case you don’t know, a triffid is a huge plant that has not only learned to walk, but will hunt you down and clobber you. Not even vegans are safe.

Books and Baby Food

I’m sitting here with my usual companion,

who is refusing to look at the camera after being kicked off my lap/keyboard about half a dozen times. She’s probably reconsidering whether I’m still her favorite human, but I keep the food dish full, so I feel secure in my position.

Anyhoo…, I’m trying to think of something to write about besides baby food (sweet potato=major fail; zucchini=gobble, gobble, gobble. Go figure).

Hmmm, something will come to me…

Toys? No…

Spit-up? No…isn’t that supposed to dial back with the introduction of solid food? Cause so far—

Wait! Stop. Not writing about spit-up…

Diapers? Definitely not (worried you there for a second, didn’t I?).

Books? Yes, books. Totally acceptable topic. I should write about something I’ve read recently…hmmm…how about something I’ve purchased recently:

Periodically, I wholeheartedly volunteer to go get groceries in the evening while Hubby is on baby duty. And, well, Chapters just happens to be right next to the grocery store (crazy coincidence).  Since Kiddo’s arrival five short months ago,  I have added the following to my bookshelf—already packed with unread volumes:

Trouble in Mind: A collection of short stories by Jeffery Deaver. I’ve read one story so far; it didn’t blow me away. Maybe more on that in a later post. If I remember, which is unlikely. Never mind.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams: Also a short-story collection, this one by Stephen King. I’m on page 22, still near the beginning of the first story (the first seven pages were the author intro).

I picked short-story collections thinking I might have a snowball’s chance in hell of finishing a complete story in a reasonable amount of time, maybe even one sitting. Turns out both Jeff and Steve consider 15000+ words to be ‘short’. I personally think this is getting into novella territory (or novellette?). According to Writer’s Digest anything under 30k can be called a short story (really?). Maybe it’s just that the length of my ‘one sitting’ has changed dramatically in recent months, but I think that’s ridiculous.

In the Unlikely Event: One of Judy Blume’s for-adults novels. I haven’t read any of her adult stuff, but I’ve been told it’s great by number of people. Including the Chapters employee who was at the checkout when I bought this one. You know how they say, ‘Whatever you do, do it well’? I swear every time I’ve been checked out by this guy he has something relevant to say about the book or the author. I’m starting to wonder if there’s a book in Chapters he hasn’t read. 

I chose this one in particular (and broke my don’t-by-hardcover-unless-it’s-on-sale rule, but it’s ok I had a gift card) partly because the description mentions air disasters of the 50s—three crashes hitting one town. I wondered if one of them was a Comet, early jets of the same time frame that exploded in midair because of square windows. I haven’t cracked this book yet, but I googled the event that apparently inspired it. Turns out the referenced plane crashes predate the Comet crashes by a couple of years. Boy, the 50s were a crappy decade for air travel.

The Dressmaker: Historical fiction by Kate Alcott, a new author for me. I didn’t actually buy this one. My mom recommend and lent it. I’ve made it to page 10, so I’m not really into the story yet but I think it has potential. (Did you notice the upside-down title in my picture? I did, but I’m not taking another one. Baby’s napping, seconds count)

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation: By Bill Nye, chosen because I like Bill Nye. I usually prefer my science-ish books a little more in depth, but I don’t have a lot of spare brain power these days. The Science Guy’s layman-level writing is just about right for my current non-fiction needs. I’ve read a whopping eighty-eight pages of this one so far.

The Children of Men: This one is by P.D. James and I bought it because for someone who writes sci fi, it’s been a while since I’ve read any. Also I haven’t read any of her books, but I’ve heard good things and was looking for something new. I haven’t started this one yet either, but according to the back cover society’s collapse is about six years away.

So there you have it, my unfulfilled reading expectations. Oh, in the background there is also The Lamb Book from IKEA’s extra-soft, baby-gums-friendly collection. I’ve ‘read’ that one quite a few times and highly recommend it to the 0-12 month crowd.

SciBabe is Awesome

Yet another baby-free time window spent reading blogs…and ignoring the imploring eyes of my neglected cats.

Have I mentioned before that SciBabe is awesome? I can’t remember if I’ve blogged about her before, and I’m too lazy to check my archives. Either way, I can make a lot of time disappear reading her blog.

To quote SciBabe: “Atheism…It’s my religion like not skateboarding on Tuesdays is my sport.”

Stephen Fry expressed a similar sentiment (paraphrasing from a Craig Ferguson interview): If someone who doesn’t believe in the Tooth Fairy were called a Floppist, I would be a Floppist. But I have no desire to spread floppism.

I agree with this:

 

If you are a Floppist, we can still be friends. Don’t get me wrong, I will think your floppism is weird and wonder what unusual childhood experience could result in your being a Floppist (past the age of six), but as long as you’re a nice, empathetic person who’s not hurting anyone, and good company in general, I’ll get over it. Because I also agree with this:

BUT

There is a disturbing lack of critical thinking skills in the world, even among the most educated of people, and religion is a big reason why. Religion, i.e. the belief in something not only when it can’t be observed, measured, or reproduced, but also in the face of observable, measurable, and reproducible evidence to the contrary.

This lack of critical thinking does cause harm. SciBabe (because she’s awesome) explains this well in her post When Education is not Enough. To save you some of the suspense, GMO’s aren’t evil (nor as common as you might think they are), there’s no government conspiracy to poison you, and for every useful source of information you’ll find through Google, you will have to wade through and recognize–hence the need for critical thinking–fifty that are bullshit. Be careful.

If you can maintain a belief in a god without losing your ability to ask hard questions (and accept unexpected/unwanted answers) then power to ya. But, I wonder how much sooner humanity might have figured out things like, say, thunder and lightning, if only time wasn’t wasted believing it came from Thor’s hammer and that was answer enough? When ‘belief’ becomes a placeholder for all that we don’t understand yet, it will be that much longer before we understand.

Although, I must say, I don’t care that Superman’s attempt to turn back time would have killed all life on Earth, or that Cinderella’s glass slipper would have shattered (some physicists might have too much time on their hands). There is a time to suspend your disbelief. Stories, no matter how absurd, are fine. As long as we admit they are stories. Exercising the imagination is good. After all, someone had to daydream about being able to fly before airplanes could be invented.

The More Things Change…More on Ray Bradbury

Some time ago, I wrote a post about Ray Bradbury’s story The Highway. I have since finished reading the collection of short stories it came in, The Illustrated Man (1999), and have a little more to say.

There are some timeless lessons to be learned from Ray Bradbury for wanna-be fiction writers. The way he approaches writing (according to the collection’s intro) rings very true and is excellent advice: writing comes from asking, ‘what if…?’ Then seeing what happens.

There is no doubt Ray Bradbury was a creative mind–in many ways ahead of his time I’m sure–and a talented writer. However, despite his vivid imaginings of the future, he must have been a strong believer in the adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

This collection was published in the late 90s, but most of the stories were written and originally published in the late-40s/early-50s time frame. There were some basic rules of life, particularly around marriage, that Ray apparently didn’t expect would change even with the advent of rockets and sentient robots.

For example, take the story Marionettes, Inc. This tale opens with two men discussing the difficulties of their marriages. The protagonist basically hates his wife and always has. The other man claims to love his wife, but he finds her tendency to over express her affection insufferable. Rather than consider how to best approach their wives and resolve these problems, the discussion leads to ethical verses unethical ways to deceive their wives. Thus making the men’s lives easier. Because men are people, and women are…inconvenient appendages?

How might one sneak out to have drinks with a buddy? They wonder. The options on the table include:

Sleeping powder = unethical.

Clone-like marionette to temporarily replace husband = ethical. What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her after all.

Seriously?

The idea that perhaps the man who never loved his wife should never have married her in the first place is briefly discussed and dismissed with reference to some family embarrassment that was prevented by the union (appearances are more important than happiness, of course).

The idea of actually talking with one’s spouse about what’s making the marriage unhappy? Not even worth a mention.

Leaving a relationship that has proven miserable for a decade? Parish the thought.

Thinking your wife might be able to tell the difference between you and a robot? Not of great concern.

I can’t decide if the wives have brain damage, or the husbands do.

All that said, Marionettes, Inc. has some good plot twists as well as the kind of ending that draws people to read Ray Bradbury and drives them nuts at the same time (in Ray’s defense, it turns out at least one of the wives may not be so superficial after all). It is a reasonable story and was probably even better to its original audience, in a decade before women were considered fully-actualized human beings. But in a more modern plot, I think there would have to be some kind of black mail, abuse, or mental illness involved to justify such lengths being taken to deceive one’s spouse.

I don’t think Ray Bradbury was oblivious the impact ‘the times’ had on his writing. In the intro (written in 1997) to the collection, he references the story The Other Foot, in which Colored people (he acknowledges, “that’s what they were called when I wrote The Other Foot in 1949”.) get to Mars before the Whites—what if?

Turns out, he couldn’t sell the story to the pre-civil-rights-movement American market—not because it isn’t a good, well-written story. He wound up giving it to a Paris-based magazine instead.

I’m sure this mark of time is an inevitable part of most writing, and I suspect it is most obvious in science fiction where authors are constantly trying to guess the complete unknown through the lens of our own lives, with no reliable frame of reference. Creative and timeless as any writer tries to be, it seems even the best sci fi will end up with elements that become comical. Look at Back to the Future. According to its timeline, 2015 is the year of the flying car.

With the 50s-style depiction of the future, I found it hard to become fully absorbed in some of the stories in The Illustrated Man. But I consider Marionettes, Inc proof such miscalculations about the future don’t have to ruin a story. And Back to the Future is still one of the best trilogies ever (in my humble opinion). Even if I’m not watching it while eating a pizza from my food rehydrator, with kids buzzing by my window on hover boards.

Maybe the greatest compliment for a sci-fi author is that their stories persists long enough to be made fun of in light of reality. If anyone is reading my writing far enough into the future to notice my generational fingerprint, awesome.